Run Windows on Your Mac For Free With VirtualBox

by Chris Howard Jun 16, 2009

How much would you pay to use Windows? Yes, I know, you'd have to be paid to use it. But the next best thing is free. But, of course, you still need Parallels or VMware to run it if you don't want to go down the BootCamp path, and they're not free. But now the third, little heard of virtualization player, VirtualBox, has matured and to such a point it can run Windows 7. And it's free. With it and Windows 7 free (for the time being), you've got a great opportunity to try out virtualization.

Windows 7

According to Microsoft, the free Windows 7 Release Candidate will be available at least until the end of July 2009. But it will work fine until March 2010. 

Now this gets quite ironic because, after March 2010, if you are running Windows 7 RC, it will shutdown every two hours. So what's new? Windows has had that "feature" for years. 

After 1 June 2010, your Windows 7 RC licence will expire and it will no longer run at all.

Thereafter, you will need to buy a copy if you still have a need for Windows. So, there is that caveat to this piece, you can only run Windows 7 for free until June 2010.

As for Windows 7 itself, Im finding it a bit try hard. It is undoubtedly an improvement on its predecessor, Vista, but visually it's the same old story. It reminds me of one of those Linux skins that goes over the top. For instance, the glassy look is good, Microsoft, but go easy on it.

So one of its visual problems is the same as Windows XP suffered. Too much of a good thing is not good. Subtlety? I should fire up a Windows dictionary and see if the word is even in there.

In fairness to it, I don't have enough call to use Windows to be able to comment on Windows 7 functionality wise. Although one thing was very noticeable - it didn't fill my life with yellow balloons. If you bneed to know if Windows 7 is any good, trawl the many Windows boards for reviews - which are usually quite favorable, unlike Vista.


Now to the other part of the equation, i.e. virtualization. If you've used Parallels on the Mac you'll be pleasantly surprised with VirtualBox. And quietly annoyed. I imagine the reaction would be similar for VMWare, which is supposedly all but on par with Parallels.

My virtualization experience is with Parallels, so it is that which I'll continually compare VirtualBox. I sampled VMware recently and saw no advantages over Parallels - and found it bit less user-friendly. Any VMware users who want to put their two cents in regards it in comparison to VirtualBox are welcome.

VirtualBox is an excellent and robust virtualization solution for the Mac. I had no trouble installing Windows 7 on it and I have found it's performance quite good. As an aside, my anecdotal experience of Parallels 4 is that it's noticeably slower than Parallels 3 was, especially boot times.

Installing Windows 7 was dead easy, with VirtualBox supporting it out-of-the-box. I followed the instructions over at Two Guys Tech. These were written in January for both an earlier version of Windows 7, and VirtualBox.  Consequently I found it even easier than it was in those instructions. However, it was a month ago, so I can't refer to specifics.

Suffice to say, if your Mac is up to it (mine is a 2006 iMac Core 2 Duo with 3GB RAM) and if you follow good instructions, you shouldn't have any problems.

VirtualBox comes in both a free open-source version for personal use and evaluation, and a closed-source enterprise version. 

It includes many useful features found in Parallels, such as copy and paste between host and client OS, mouse integration, various windows modes including seamless mode (similar to Parallels coherence mode). It's enterprise version also claims to have features none of the other solutions have.

Two problems I found with Windows 7 on VirtualBox was it wouldn't connect to any of my external drives, including my USB flash drive, and it doesn't support drag and drop of files.

As mentioned, performance is good, and according to the "Windows Experience Index" (Windows' own inbuilt variation on the XBench idea), it rates similar to low-end PCs I've run it in department stores. Except for graphics, which scores the lowest possible rating of 1.0 out of 7.9. (Only Microsoft could come up with a rating system out of 7.9. They sure know finer points of user-friendliness in Redmond.) 

Despite this low graphics rating, I still found Photoshop CS4 quite usable.

I think VirtualBox is a good first step into virtualization on your Mac. If you need to get a bit serious with it, then you will have to see how it stacks up against Parallels and VMware in relation to your needs. 

With VirtualBox free and Windows as well, now is a good time to give running Windows virtually on your Mac a look.


  • Did you install the 32bit or 64bit version.

    Khürt Williams had this to say on Jun 16, 2009 Posts: 45
  • “Too much of a good thing is not good. Subtlety? I should fire up a Windows dictionary and see if the word is even in there.”

    Ah, irony.  Without your snarky slams against Windows 7, which you admit to barely even using, your article on VirtualBox would have been about 3 lines long.  Very subtle, Chris.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Jun 16, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Khürt, am running 32 bit.

    Beeb, just snarking the look.

    Ever since XP, Microsoft has had this belief that the visual design has to be in your face. Personally, I don’t like that, and in both XP and Windows 7, I have reverted to the “Windows Classic” appearance, which although somewhat dowdy, is not distracting.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jun 16, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • The rating scale of 7.9 was calculated on a Pentium.

    Robinhood had this to say on Jun 17, 2009 Posts: 9
  • I’m a huge fan of VMWare compared to Parallels. It took Parallels until v.3 to allow me to simply drag/drop files from my Win or Linux desktop to my OS X desktop and vice versa. VMWare had it right from Day One.

    As for Win 7, I’ll hang on another year and check it out, but then I’ll take a hard look at whether I really need Windows for anything anymore.

    The Codeweavers/WINE solution is getting better and better, if I really need a Win-only app for something, but with no “middleman” OS that I am reluctant to pay for.

    tao51nyc had this to say on Jun 17, 2009 Posts: 45
  • To play with Windows 7 and ubuntu i’m using VMware Fusion. There are still many tips and tricks in using VirtualBox to unleash its real power. -Tire Works

    Tire Works had this to say on Aug 08, 2011 Posts: 11
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    densk had this to say on Aug 21, 2011 Posts: 3
  • Ah, irony.  Without your snarky slams against Windows 7, which you admit to barely even using, your article on VirtualBox would have been about 3 lines long.  Very subtle, Chris.
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  • Generally I do not learn from posts on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and I did so! Your writing style has amazed me. Thank you, quite nice article.
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